Slowing Down in the Cotswolds
By Eleanor Berman
In today’s jangly, jittery world, the tranquil villages of England’s Cotswolds are a welcome oasis.
This rural region of steep hills and broad valleys begins about 100 miles from London and stretches 25 miles across and 90 miles long. Its villages are filled with slate-roofed cottages, built of golden-hued stone, mellowed by the centuries. Fences of the same locally quarried stone crisscross the rich farmland between settlements, a lovely sight from the hilltop villages.
What to do in these villages? Slow down. Admire the cottages and some venerable churches, brose tiny intriguing shops, meander country paths, and take a break with a proper afternoon tea or a brew in the local pub. As an escape from the news and the noise, there’s nothing better.
I did my exploring thanks to The Oxford Experience, a summer-long series of one-week studies for adults based in the hallowed halls of Christ Church, the most beautiful of all the Oxford colleges. Many of my companions chose more traditional courses like English history, politics or the novels of Jane Austen. But hoping to see more of the country, I picked The Cotswolds Past, Present and Future, which promised visits to various sites for three of the five class days.
We learned that the name means “sheep enclosure in rolling hillsides”, incorporating cote, a shelter for animals, and wold, meaning hills. The area originally prospered thanks to the profusion of sheep. Their unusually thick wool supplied mills that once accounted for a good percentage of the world’s blanket production. Then the arrival of synthetics and the duvet put the sheep out to pasture and the villages were left to mellow, undisturbed.
Our first excursion began in Witney, once a thriving mill town and still a local center, with a population of 12,000 that makes it urban compared to its neighbors. It was the setting for the best-seller, The Girl on the Train. Our instructor, Mike Breakell, an urban planner, pointed out one of his prides, an award-winning shopping center built of local brick to blend perfectly with its surroundings. Outside town we stopped at Cogges Manor Farm, which served as Yew Tree Farm on TV’s Downton Abbey. Then we walked across the meadows and down a wooded path to Breakell’s home village of Finstock, population 800. There is nothing touristy about Finstock, no shops, just one pub, but for a true taste of bucolic village life, strolling its lanes is a treat.
The next day everyone at the Oxford Experience was invited on an afternoon excursion to Kelmscott Manor, a 1600s stone farmhouse that was the country retreat of William Morris, founder of England’s Arts and Crafts movement. His distinctive textiles, furnishings and ceramics fill the home and the grounds include the original barns and the gardens he designed.
Our full day out took in a range of villages, no two just alike, all with memorable names– Chipping Campden, Broadway, Stow-on the Wold and Burford. It is a route I can recommend to any visitors. Stow-on-the-Wold was one of the hilltop villages I particularly enjoyed for the vistas below. We also made a stop at the Rollright Stones somewhere near Chipping Norton, the Cotswold answer to Stonehenge, a mysterious circle of large stones with some real giants nearby. Burford was memorable for its magnificent church dating to the 12th century.
The Cotswold are not Disneyland. The villages can be clogged with cars during market days. Modern life inserts itself when signs in front of quaint tea rooms offer gluten-free menus. And like the rest of the world, these villages are fighting off developers who would dearly love to replace the charm with condos. But for now, at least, the villagers are winning and this remains a rare retreat. I can hardly wait to go back.
The Oxford Experience 2018 runs this summer for six weeks, beginning July 1. Lodging is in student accommodations, most with private baths. The cost is 1520 pounds, roughly $ 2006, including room for six nights, full board (surprisingly sumptuous), five day of classes and many extra tours and evening activities. The Cotswolds course will be offered during week 2, July 8-14. But many classes fill as soon as registration opens in September, and to get this or other popular courses may require planning for next year. The full program can be seen at www.conted.ox.ac.uk/oxford-experience.
Eleanor Berman, a New York freelance writer and award-winning author of a dozen travel guides, has covered 82 countries and all 7 continents. She has written for many national publications, including Travel & Leisure, Ladies’ Home Journal, Diversion, Robb Report, Boston Globe, Atlanta Constitution, Denver Post, Miami Herald, and the New York Daily News. Among her guide book awards are a Lowell Thomas award for Traveling Solo, Thomas Cook Book of the Year for Eyewitness Guide to New York, and Independent Publishers IPPY award, best guide of the year, for New York Neighborhoods.